EDITOR’s NOTE—At ReadTheSpirit magazine, since our founding in 2007, we have asked writers of various faiths to describe for us the experience of traveling through their holy seasons. This week, our longtime columnist and author Benjamin Pratt invites us on a journey through Christian Holy Week. (And, to our Orthodox friends in the eastern branches of Christianity: We know your calendar places Holy Week in the final days of April this year—and we hope these reflections this week are an inspiring preview for you.)
By BENJAMIN PRATT
Let’s start our journey into the Christian Holy Week by recalling the timely wisdom of the Holy Twins.
Benedict of Nursia, (c. 620 AD)—who built on the ancient wisdom of the Essenes, the Desert Fathers and Augustine—integrated monastic life into the lives of ordinary people by welcoming them to participate in the monastic disciplines of education, agriculture and liturgy. Regular ReadTheSpirit followers have seen numerous reminders of the timely relevance, today, of Benedict’s centuries-old rules, including this 2018 cover story with poet Judith Valente.
Lesser known in this country is Benedict’s twin sister. Saint Scholastica is the patron of Benedictine nuns, education and convulsive children, and is invoked against storms and rain. According to a long Christian tradition, she is identified also as the twin sister of Benedict and shows up in icons, statues and illuminated manuscripts around the world. To this day, for example, she and her brother look out across the historic city of Prague, where a resurgence of faith played a catalytic role in the downfall of Communism 30 years ago.
Benedict and his twin sister focused on the Way, the Path of Jesus. Through their teachings, Benedict and Scholastica encouraged the sensible redirecting of one’s ordinary life toward a Christ-centered life. Their goal was to help people expand their awareness of Christ’s presence in their everyday lives as they seek to follow the Christic journey.
What can the Holy Twins teach us today? Consider this: Benedict lived in a time when the positive values of culture and community seemed to be crumbling all around him. On the one hand, Benedict rejected the lavish excesses of wealthy Roman families. On the other hand, he recognized that European culture more broadly was disintegrating as the old Roman Empire had been repeatedly invaded and had slowly collapsed. His collected disciplines, or rule, became the foundation for many other religious communities and was credited with stabilizing and reviving European culture. In the 20th Century, popes elevated him to the status of Europe’s patron saint.
Benedict’s and Scholastica’s history and legacy are not unique. In fact, nearly all of history’s great religious movements—in Christianity and in other global religious traditions—arose to confront and address major social crises.
Perhaps we need a new monastic order for our chaotic era, today.
For a few moments, then, let us approach the Christian Holy Week as a spiritual tradition, evoking the disciplines of Benedict and Scholastica, day by day.
The Call of Jesus
“I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life,” says Jesus in the Gospel of John. The Way calls followers of Jesus into the Christic Journey that can transform our lives and the world.
Just a few months ago, Christians acknowledged that Christmas celebrates two birthdays—the historical birth of Jesus and our birth into the life and way of Jesus. Then, as the year turns, Holy Week now leads us into the most intense part of this journey with Jesus.
There are many Christian traditions around the world that mark Holy Week—community customs, songs, liturgies, family traditions, food and even different ways of counting the days on our calendars. Together, they represent a vast global journey that passes three timeless pillars in this journey:
- Friday, the day Jesus was tacked to a tree, the day in which his spirit was broken.
- Saturday, the long day of waiting, some say the day Jesus descended into hell.
- Sunday, Easter morning, the day of the resurrection of Jesus, which made Jesus our Christ.
I invite you, then, to go deeper with me into these three days.
Ask yourself: Where are you on your own Christic journey? Do you feel yourself stuck in Friday, or are you, like so many, trapped in Saturday? Or, have you reached the triumphant spiritual “Yes!” of Sunday morning?
FRIDAY—When Our Dreams Collide with …
First, as we prepare for Friday, it is helpful to ask some of the questions we share: What are we yearning for? Dreaming for? Hoping for in our lives, our families, our communities and our world?
At some point in the midst of these hopes and dreams—every one of us has hit a Friday. For many, the current virus is a Friday. At some point, nearly all of us have been thrown up against a rock, or tacked to a tree, and our dreams have been devastated, our innocence violated. Those are the Fridays of our lives.
Ask yourself: When was my spirit broken? What broke it? Did that brokenness threaten or even destroy my faith in myself, in others or in God? For some of us, these questions take us way back. Perhaps our innocence was violated very early by an angry mother or a distant or absent father, by alcohol in the family, or by physical or emotional abuse.
This week, to go even deeper into this part of the journey, I invite you to read Lucille Sider’s deeply moving Holy Week story, titled: Forgiving My Father. Some of us, in reading Lucille’s story, will recall our own similar moments of brokenness.
Or perhaps that brokenness took a different form in your life. I will never forget a friend telling me that, when she was 7 years old, her beloved uncle—who had seemed to embody all the goodness in life—died of cancer. “Something in me wasn’t sure where God was, and whether I could believe in goodness any longer,” she recalled.
For some of us of a certain age, the brokenness was the horror of discovering that our senior trip was heading toward the jungles of Vietnam. And for others, it was when our marital dream died. Or we dreamed of who we were supposed to be in this world, but we never opened that door. Or we didn’t have the children that we thought we would have, or we had more children than we thought we would have, or a child of ours became mentally ill or a child died.
On these Fridays, the pain is excruciating, and it is very appropriate to be angry or in deep grief.
SATURDAY—the Temptation of Accidie
Fortunately, most of us don’t live our lives stuck in Friday. We move to Saturday. The temptation for many of us is that we can become Saturday’s child. Remember the nursery rhyme? Saturday’s child works hard for a living.
For Saturday is the janitorial day of life. It’s the errand day. It’s the “get-through-it” day. For some of us, it’s the day when grief and anger can combine into a flat, soft, cynical bitterness. It may even lead to a kind of spiritual deadness.
Stuck in this endless Saturday cycle? It’s the kind of life in which we don’t feel any spice, any vitality, any vigor. The Desert Fathers and Mothers called this “accidie”—one of the so-called seven deadly sins.
Why is accidie such a dangerous temptation? Because it can cascade into other sins. In our accidie, we may turn to lust, perhaps affairs. We may turn to gluttony. Or, avarice might send us into obsessive buying. We may be laboring so hard each day that everyone else thinks we are just fine—and yet we are aching to fill our empty hearts. We are trapped.
I have written about this powerful spiritual struggle many times over the years, including in my book about Ian Fleming and James Bond. In the Middle Ages, “accidie” was translated as “sloth” or “torpor.” But, this is a spiritual condition and is distinctly different from either physical exhaustion or depression. In accidie, we loose all energy for engaging the world. The needs, the goals and even the good and the evil around us do not matter enough to inspire any action.
Falling into accidie is not a sin in itself. The sins—the separations from a fuller life—arise when we fail to recognize that we are stuck in the Saturday of accidie and never search for ways to resist its clutches.
SUNDAY—A New and Right Spirit
We all yearn for Sunday morning, the day of a clean and restored heart.
Eternal life begins now!
This is a resurrection of our spirit within our daily life—a spirit filled with gratitude, joy and hope that we share in daily service of others. Yes, the Resurrection gives us hope of life beyond this life—but first it gives us hope of life within this journey, this Way! It is the day that even with your broken spirit you are able, perhaps with a limp in your soul, to sing a Doxology.
Doxology is one of the oldest forms of Christian praise. A modern rendering is:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise God, all creatures here below;
Praise God for all that love has done;
Creator, Christ and Spirit, One.
Sunday is the day we can say humbly that life is good as it is given. I like to pray: Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, not a cynical spirit, not a bitter spirit. God will not reject a humble and repentant heart.
So let’s look together at the hope of Sunday morning. How do we get there? How do we prevent ourselves from staying Saturday’s child? I’m going to give you a spiritual solution because it is a spiritual problem.
Religion is for people who try to stay out of hell. Spirituality is for those of us who have already been there.
Sing a New Song
So what is the first spiritual answer? This is where the wisdom of Benedict’s disciplines really shines through in our Christic journey. The first spiritual corrective, the first spiritual discipline, is singing.
How long has it been since you’ve just burst forth in song? You don’t have to do it when somebody is near—but try it at some point. Yes, actually burst forth in song!
In the early 1600’s, Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in a small town in Germany. An infectious disease spread throughout his community and more than half his congregation was lost. He conducted as many as 50 funerals a day. And in the midst of that loss, he wrote the hymn, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices.” It is one of the most powerful faith statements ever uttered. Can you imagine in the midst of that loss singing that song?
So here’s an invitation. For the next 30 days, perhaps at your lunch hour, find a few private minutes and sing that hymn. Or, you may want to do what I have been doing in the morning for many years. I sing the Doxology.
Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through singing.
The Work of Our Hands
And in addition to singing, Benedict knew that we need to labor with our hands.
We need manual labor. So much of the work we do in our times is intangible work. It is mental, emotional, relational work. An excellent way to combat our accidie is to get into some good, hard manual labor. St. John of Damascus in the eighth century defined accidie as “a sorrowfulness so weighing down the mind that there is no good it likes to do. It has attached to it as its inseparable comrade a distress and a weariness of soul and a sluggishness in all good works which plunges the whole person into a lazy languor and works in him or her a constant, slow, lazy bitterness.” We all know that at times of idleness or unemployment, we are more liable to succumb to accidie. But often we need more than the intellectual or emotional drain of everyday work.
We need a work that involves our whole physical being.
Henri Nouwen, who spent seven months in the Genesee monastery in New York, labored lifting rocks and digging ditches and sorting pebbles out of raisins that went into raisin bread (thank you, Henry). And he wrote this about the value of manual labor: “Manual work indeed unmasks my illusions. It shows me how I am constantly looking for interesting, exciting, distracting activities to keep my mind busy and away from the confrontation with my nakedness and powerlessness, my mortality and my weakness. Dull work at least opens up my basic defenselessness and makes me vulnerable. I hope and pray that this vulnerability will not make me fearful or angry but instead open to the very gifts of God’s grace.”
For my wife Judith and me, gardening enriches our souls. I did a little planting already this week. For Gandhi it was weaving. And there are even the mundane chores of vacuuming, washing dishes by hand or carefully preparing traditional foods.
Want a great suggestion? A 12-bean Ecuadorian Holy Week soup called Fanesca is described, this week in Doug Yunker’s column, titled: A Reflection on the Wonders of Holy Week: The Jesus Cabinet of Curiosities and a traditional soup of many beans. Read some of the recipes for Franesca at the end of Doug’s column. Making that soup? It’s work!
Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through manual labor.
Turning to Prayer
As we continue along this Christic Journey, many of us will discover that what kills accidie outright is prayer. A decade ago in this magazine, I shared this prayer that I have found helpful in wrestling with accidie. However, I do not want to mislead you. To meet the attack of accidie with prayer means more than just a quick appeal to drive away the black mood.
All of the steps I have described are part of a larger spiritual transformation. For if we really dedicate ourselves to this entire process, all kinds of things begin to happen. Right away we are beginning to rise from the dead, for whenever we honestly turn our thoughts to God, then new life begins to happen in us. We shall be reminded again and again through prayer of the great and good purposes of the living God.
For many years I have been inviting couples especially to pray daily the prayer of St. Francis. In marriage counseling, I focus especially on the middle portion of that prayer, “Lord help me to seek more to understand than to be understood, more to console than to be consoled, more to love than to be loved.” And some people have taken it very seriously. I’ve been absolutely amazed. One couple has prayed it together even when they are out of town. The husband sat in my office, with the tears running down his face, “Never in my whole life did I imagine I would be more interested in understanding my wife than in forcing her to understand me.”
Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through prayer.
Hospitality, the Doorway to Community
And finally, the fourth spiritual discipline is to be in community, to remain hospitable—to be in a community that does not forget the least among us and seeks God in all things.
Shortly after Front Edge Publishing was founded in 2007, I became one of the publishing house’s first authors, attracted to this team’s founding principle: Good media builds healthy community. And, we say: A book is a community between two covers. Now, 14 years later, our collective community of writers and writings—including my own contributions to many books—circles the world. I have told stories, shared prayers and songs and poems, and invited readers into a larger spiritual community along with friends we have met in Europe, Africa, Asia and, of all places on the planet, New Zealand.
So, what is “community”? It is closely related to compassion, humility and hospitality.
One of my favorite examples happened just a few years ago in Seattle, Washington, at the Special Olympics. Nine children lined up on the starting line for the 100 yard dash, and the gun went off, and these children began to move with great relish! But, before they were even one-third of the way, one child tripped and fell, skinned his knee, bloodied his hand and begin to cry. By that time, all the other children were farther ahead of him, but one by one they began to stop and turn around. And one little girl with Down’s syndrome knelt down and kissed his forehead and said, “This will make it feel better.” And each of the other children helped pull this child to his feet and all nine children, locked arm-in-arm, walked across the finish line together.
Thousands of people came to their feet and cheered—and cheered—and cheered.
Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, with singing, prayer, manual labor and with community.
And to all of our friends around the world, I wish you a glorious struggle and triumphant renewal in this Holy Week laid out before us—and I wish our Orthodox friends the same a month from now.
Care to read more?
Based near Washington D.C., the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is a retired pastoral counselor with 40 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a retired member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Before COVID struck, he travels widely to work with groups, conferences and other events. Even in the pandemic, he continues this work virtually. He has been a keynote speaker and is a veteran of designing workshops and weekend retreats, which he has conducted nationwide. He writes regularly for ReadTheSpirit online magazine and also is a featured columnist at the website for the popular Day1 radio network.
His book, A Guide for Caregivers, has helped thousands of families nationwide cope with the wide array of challenges involved as more than 50 million of us serve as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. In 2021, Ben will continue to write about caregiving issues for us.
His book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, explores some of the themes in this week’s Holy Week column, including an in-depth look at Accidie.
If you find these books helpful, and if you suggest that your small group discuss these books, we would love to hear from you about your response, ideas and questions. Or, if you are interested in ordering these books in quantity, please contact us at [email protected]